May 6, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Give thanks to God for the joy his love and mercy have made possible

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

“Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying: ‘Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one. … I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely’ ” (Jn 17:1;11b;13b).

The Easter season is a time when we celebrate the joy of our Lord’s resurrection as completely as possible. It’s a time to reflect on all the good things that have been made possible by the life, death and resurrection of God’s only Son.

As Jesus prepared to return to his heavenly Father, he prayed for us—that we would be one as he and his Father are one. He knew that our happiness as children of God and sisters and brothers to each other depends on our unity. He also knew that one of the Evil One’s greatest weapons is his ability to divide us and turn us against one another.

In the Gospel of St. John (Jn 17: 11b-19), Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the Evil One” (Jn 17:15).

As faithful disciples, we cannot escape the temptations of the Evil One. That’s why we need God’s grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to preserve our unity and remain close to God and one another.

Unity is tough to achieve, and maintain, “in the world.” Families struggle to stick together and not turn against each other. Communities face the challenges that come when strangers (foreigners or aliens) move in and threaten ways of living that have become familiar and comfortable. Nations resort to war for a variety of economic, cultural and religious reasons—none of which serve the common good or the ultimate ends of liberty, justice and peace. No wonder Jesus prayed to his Father for us, imploring “that they may be one just as we are one!” (Jn 17:11)

Disunity, division and enmity are part of the human condition, the result of original sin. Sadness, not joy, is the all-too common experience of those who struggle unsuccessfully to be united. Separation, not togetherness, too frequently threatens families, neighborhoods, parish communities and even nations. Jesus’ prayer for unity takes on a special urgency when we are forced to confront the divisions and disunity all around us.

What can we do to resist the temptations of the Evil One and to come together as a united people, the family of God?

The Holy Year of Mercy that we are celebrating now gives us some important insights to achieving and maintaining unity. There can be no peace without forgiveness, recent popes have insisted. Unless we forgo vengeance and overcome ancient hurts, we will never reconcile—as individuals, families, local communities or nation-states. The ability to ask for forgiveness, and equally importantly to grant forgiveness, is essential to achieving reconciliation and unity.

Pope Francis reminds us quite forcefully that “mercy is the face of God.” By this, he means that God looks at us with loving and forgiving eyes. He does not exact retribution for our sins. He knows how cruelly we punish ourselves with our selfishness and sin. God is the face of mercy because when we open our eyes (and our hearts) to him, what we see in return is God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

The ardent prayer of Jesus—that they may be one just as we are one—follows his extraordinary prayer on the cross that we would be forgiven our unpardonable sins against him and the part that each of us played in humanity’s rejection of God’s wondrous love. First Jesus forgives us. Then he prays that we will be united with each other and with him. And only then does it become possible for us to share in his joy—completely!

Easter joy flows from the greatest act of love and forgiveness the world has ever known. Mercy is the gateway to joy, and the more generous and forgiving we become, the more our joy is complete.

If we are angry, unhappy or alone, we need to follow Jesus’ example: forgive the wrongs done to us (no matter how awful or undeserving); reconcile with open arms and hearts (as God continually reaches out to us, especially in the sacraments); and rejoice in God’s abundant goodness!

As we prepare to conclude this Easter season, let’s give thanks to God for the joy that his love and mercy have made possible for us. And let’s recommit ourselves to resisting the temptation to separate ourselves from each other and from God. Only then will we be truly one. Only then will our joy be complete. †

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